08 January 2011

Search for the Sy: SL as platform? game? or? and?

The Search for the Sy opened recently at IBM Exhibition C. It's an interesting build, both for its own sake and for its connection to recent discussions on the nature and future of Second Life.

The creators of Search for the Sy -- Annabelle Fanshaw, Layton Destiny, and Vicki Brandenburg -- say in their introductory notecard that:
This is a sim devoted to encouraging play, and game development in a virtual world.  We seek to explore how an environment filled with interesting things, and a compelling back story can create a multi leveled game within itself. How can the players make a game within the game? How can the game grow beyond its original scope?
[ . . . ]
Concepts such as cultural absorption, indigenous species survival, shadow biospheres and mimetic mythology peek from around the prims in this build, but the purpose is to have fun, to take the ride, and come out on the other side slightly windblown, but smiling.
The backstory is that three scientists were exploring an abandoned sim and found various peculiarities that suggested the existence of a silicon-based biosphere. To investigate it further, they built a detector which seems to have led to their own disappearance, possibly to the silicon world. The game for sim visitors is to locate pieces of the detector, fit them together, solve a couple of puzzles, and find the silicon life forms -- the Sy. You get a trophy if you win, and your name is listed on a wall in the sim's landing area.

The space has three levels: the terrestrial world (the photo below is of an underwater portion), a transitional sphere where one takes on a Sy avatar, and the Sy realm itself.  (Click on photos to enlarge.)



I'm not a gamer (tried a little roleplay once, it didn't take), so I have no idea how the Search for the Sy compares to other online quests in difficulty or complexity. In any case, I enjoyed the challenge. Admittedly, I was lucky enough to fall upon a missing page from a scientist's log, which helped me find pieces of the detector -- a big help, though some may feel that such "cheat sheets" would ruin the search-and-discover experience. (I wouldn't give away any hints, would I??)

The spaces of Search for the Sy are visually appealing, and it is a thoroughly immersive environment. As a game, it is also necessarily interactive, which is a crucial part of exploiting the possibilities of Second Life. But one aspect of the search particularly interests me: it requires the explorer to have basic building skills. One has to know how to manipulate relatively small prims and link them, know what a root prim, and know how to make a particular prim the root. However, many people in SL don't have those skills, rudimentary as they may seem. (A friend guessed 95%; that seems overly pessimistic to me, but she has a much broader and more representative range of friends than I have, so she may well be right.)

Several issues come to mind. First, what should we make of the fact that many people will never be capable of success in this game? Are the creators of Search for the Sy being exclusionary in some sense? I don't think that would be a valid conclusion: most games require some skills, a potential player must work to develop those skills if she hopes to play, and no matter how dedicated they are, some players simply won't become competitive. (I might have a shot at a career as a football, but never as a football player.) And yet I also want to see works of art and builds such as this one be accessible to a reasonably large audience, not just the minority who've learned how to do basic building in SL: those basics simply aren't that hard to learn, and more people should learn them. So from another perspective, Search for the Sy raises the bar for what is expected of participants in Second Life: that one should be more than (say) a consumer or romance/sex seeker. So even if Search for the Sy is "exclusionary," is that a bad thing?

Search for the Sy also pushes Second Life artists and builders. As I said, I'm not a gamer, so I don't know how often building is a part of virtual world games, whether in SL, World of Warcraft or elsewhere. But despite some artists' advocacy for art that makes the most of SL's capabilities and/or for art that involves interactivity, I can't think of a single artwork that requires its audience to interact with it so deeply, by becoming builders too. Perhaps a few such works exist; I know one artist who has been thinking along these lines, and probably there are others. But actual examples? By being a game, Search for the Sy challenges artists in Second Life to raise the stakes in their own game.

The issues that Search for the Sy raises are timely, since Linden Labs just named Ron Humble its new CEO. Humble was with Electronic Arts, maker of the highly popular Sims game, and before that he worked at Sony developing EverQuest, another MMO. His appointment has stirred discussion about the future of SL and whether it is or should be a game (see for example the posts by Botgirl Questi and Bryn Oh). Of course nobody has any idea where Humble will lead SL, but he's put the game issue front and center.

One question not well explored is what it means to be a game. Some people suggest that games necessarily involve winners and losers, but that reflects a narrow conceptualization of play. Roleplay, for example, does not need to have winners and losers (although a particular RP game might): the challenge can be more qualitative, the object of the game simply joy or exploration. Similarly with the adoption of cross-gender and non-human avatars. In fact, the adoption of any avatar involves elements of games and play. Some objections to the idea that SL is a game invoke the point that SL is real -- real people produce real things, have real interactions, really fall in love, all through a digital medium and in digital form. But then, we also speak of love as a game (need there be losers?), war as a game (need there be winners?), and so forth -- games with real-world consequences.

So, while it's inaccurate to say that Second Life simply is a game, I also demur from the idea that SL is a neutral platform within which people can create games. Game qualities are inherent to Second Life. Those qualities can be developed to various extents, in various ways, and toward various ends. But they cannot be eliminated. The creators of Search for the Sy seem to recognize that fact when they write of players making a game within a game. There are potential implications for how artworks might engage their audiences, as games elements may generate new approaches to virtual art and build new types of public interest in it.


  1. Thank you, Dividni, for such a well thought out and insightful post about our creation. We did think of all those questions, and at times debated them, but you know, sometime you just have to try and see what happens. I am glad you enjoyed it.
    We are already planning the next one- Annabelle

  2. Great post, Dividni. Game Theory is a branch of mathematics that is widely-used in the social sciences to view behaviour in strategic situations. Interactions between people can be labeled "transactions," "interactions," "involvements" or "games."

    Games are not necessarily win/lose situations. Playing with your cat is not win/lose (unless you make her mad, insult her, do it too fast or too slow... wait, let's not use that as an example)

    ok, playing with a baby is not a win/lose situation; you make a game of interacting with the baby, teaching it many things on many levels, "humanizing" it according to the prevailing social norms by example and exaggeration. You enjoy yourself, the baby does too; it's a positive-sum game.